Forests of India: Balancing ecological and human complexities

Forests of India: Balancing ecological and human complexities

Unlike their colonial predecessors like Cleghorn, Stebbing (Forests of India, Bodley Head, London), Troup, Brandis and others, independent India’s forestry professionals have left remarkably limited records of their experiences and insights to benefit relevant stakeholders.

 Therefore, the recently-published volume titled Forest Conservation Concerns in India, by two Indian senior foresters is a landmark in Indian forestry.

The authors S Shyam Sunder and S Parameshwarappa were both recruited into the State Forest Services, during 1938-1967, when the Indian Forest Service with its much-envied ‘All India Service’ status did not exist. Consequently, they did not ascend the top rapidly and get buried in paper work as current recruits do, allowing them a much closer and longer association with the forests. 

The authors, whose careers straddled the critical period when some of the current policy flaws emerged, deserve to be congratulated for breaking out of complacent silence to write this book. Written in a casual style, the book is an authoritative treatise. It defies any strict categorisation, but is a scholarly narrative, marshalling solid recorded evidence and personal experiences to create a rich tapestry of India’s forest conservation and management history striving to balance the ecological and human complexities.

Backed with over three decades of practical forestry experience, the authors provide a sharp polemical rejoinder to argue that factual inaccuracies and ‘politically-correct’ misrepresentations by academics have over time created a policy ambience that ignores evidence and the complexities of managing the forest commons. 

The book is a massive labour of love, with tremendous research on writings of other scholars, including the academics the authors disagree with, as well as archival material and government records to buttress the arguments. It begins with early history of India, laying bare agro-pastoralism during initial incursion of Aryans and other groups, and subsequently- promoted by kings and rulers, as the primary driving force behind extensive deforestation.

It then explores massive deforestation and forest degradation during the entry years of Western colonial powers. They provide evidence to counter hypothesis of romanticised environmentalists about conscious conservation or sustainable use of forests on significant scale during this period, as mere politically correct wishful hindsight. 

They then talk about evolution of intellectual ideas about resource prudence (or the lack of it) among human societies in general, and about forest conservation in particular. They give anecdotes of Western foresters who helped evolve pragmatic forest conservation policies and carefully-carved out ‘Forest Estates’, even opposing the British civil administration in power, which, for want of peace with locals, permitted destructive agro-pastoral practices. 

The authors explore establishment of training facilities for Indian foresters and how early plans actually tried to balance the conflicting demands from local users and industries with the overarching imperative to conserve forests. They then launch a scathing indictment on post-independence social policies that led to diversion of vast tracts of natural forests for cultivation, and, their excessive exploitation, by rural communities who were ironically their custodians. 

The authors are anguished that ‘forest loss’ is simplistically blamed on ‘greedy and ignorant foresters’, and argue that  agricultural expansion, developmental projects and overexploitation by rural users were more aggravating. 

Here, the authors may have undermined the spectacular damage caused by ‘dynamic forestry’ aggressively promoted in the 1960s by forest departments, which also provided a very convenient handle and target for those who believe in ‘native conservation wisdom’ as a religious dogma. Calling the sixth chapter the ‘Ray of Hope’, they describe various legislations, management structures and training facilities established to promote wildlife conservation and management in the 20thcentury India.

The book counters attacks of conservation views of the ‘Indian academic environmental establishment’ comprising scholars like Madhav Gadgil (Gadgil M and Guha R, 1992; This fissured land: An ecological history of India), Vandana Shiva (Shiva V,1993; Monocultures of the Mind), Ramachandra Guha(Guha R 1983; Forestry in British India and post-British India: A historical analysis,Economic & Political Weekly, October 29-November 5) and populist green leaders like Sundarlal Bahuguna.

Positive trends

Although one may not agree with all their interpretations, the authors make a solid case, with evidence on specific issues that forest conservation is far too complex to be trivialised as a ‘good guys versus bad guys story’. The last two chapters contain useful commentaries on specific topics including forest fires, local wood extraction practices, role of judiciary, the forest rights legislation, role of corporate and public-private partnerships in forestry. 

While many things are going wrong with forest conservation as the authors argue, there are some positive trends that must be acknowledged.  India is going through a demographic transition with a massive and rapid shift to urbanisation and use of modern knowledge and technologies, potentially providing more room for forests (or productive plantations) to re-green the vacated land. Concerned citizens outside of the government system are doggedly fighting for the cause, avoiding pitfalls of simplistic analyses.

A judicious mix of pragmatic and evidence-based government interventions, leveraging the innovation and enterprise of Indian farmers, foresters and businesses can help meet social needs for forest products from land outside natural forests, which should indeed get a respite to recover from centuries of abuse.

A critical analysis of the more recent systemic deterioration in quality and functioning of forest departments across the country would have been a welcome addition. Nevertheless, this book significantly contributes to the corpus of prior knowledge and experience, providing the basis for future policy interventions. It will help shed light into the dark ideological prison in which the forest conservation issue is now being held hostage by environmental ideologues. It deserves to be read by all those who are interested in the fate of India’s wonderful forests and rich biodiversity.

(The writer is Director for Science-Asia, Wildlife Conservation Society)

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